Journalists, with a few rare exceptions, are not intrepid truthtellers. They are cautious careerists, and they do what conventionally ambitious people do to advance their careers. That's their primary concern. And that almost always means kowtowing to power and doing whatever one has to to do in playing the game that leads to getting ahead.
I don't think they do this in a completely conscious, calculating way. I'm sure there are denial mechanisms and all manner of self justifications to enable them to think that they are more independent minded than they actually are. But the fact is that you don't get ahead unless you play by the rules, and those rules are detrmined by those who have the power. Those who serve power get ahead; those who resist get filtered out.
If you were a citizen of the USSR and had ambitions to pursue a career in the days of Soviet power, you joined the party and you played by the rules, even if you didn't believe in Communist doctrine. It's not a particularly evil motivation; it's just what ordinary people do when for them it's a matter of adapting to and getting along in the "real world." The same basic social psychology is operative in the US. In the case of the Press, it's not Soviet reality; it's corporate media reality. It's called being a team player. Anybody with a real independent streak gets filtered out pretty early in his or her career.
A guy like Edward R. Murrow was an aberration even in his own day. He would never have been allowed to do what he did in the fifties had he not earned enormous credibility in the forties from his courageous reporting during a war when there was no controversy about who the bad guys were. He had capital to spend that no mainstream journalist has today. To his credit he spent it.
Bush received far more respect from the press than he ever deserved because the GOP dominates all three branches of governmnent, and the Democrats were about as weak-kneed and confused a lot as you could ever think possible. So if you're an editor or publisher for a bigtime media institution, you know which side your bread is buttered on, and that agenda gets passed on to the reporters in explicit and subtle ways. You're not going to loook for trouble, because Power can make all kinds of difficuluties for you. Power always gets the benefit of the doubt. You are first and foremost a businessman, and that's a tough enough job without making it harder by taking on the government. Look at what has happened to the New York Times. It's a source I can no longer take seriously.
If you want to see an interesting record of exactly what I'm talking about, check out this page that Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting put together that compiles how wrong the pundits got it in the weeks after the invasion of Iraq. It's why I just don't listen to them anymore. What they say has no value except to understand what the current self-justifying groupthink is in the corridors of power. These are not serious people worthy of our time and attention.
So the Beltway media establishment has become, in effect, a courtier class, and like royal courts through the ages, all the courtiers are gossiping and maneuvering for to promote their advantage. And success depends on knowing how to navigate the strong currents shaped by the very strong cliquishly determined likes and dislikes as determined by the powers that be. These likes and dislikes have very little to do with the likes and the dislikes of the rest of the country. But the courtier class nevertheless has an inordinate amount of power in shaping the country's perceptions of those they dislike or like to appear likable or unlikable.
Everybody has strengths; everybody has weaknesses. The establishment media can be savagely selective about which they choose to emphasize and which to disregard. These courtiers loathed Jimmy Carter and loved Ronald Reagan. One's flaws were magnified; the other's minimized. Did it have anything to do with the substantive qualities that either of these men brought to the office? As a result Ronald Reagan, the hollowest of hollow men, lives on in our media-mangled memory as one of the greatest presidents.
Jimmy Carter, whom I believe would have been a great president in his second term, goes on to live a quiet life of committed, subtantive service in the private sphere. In my opinion, 1980 was as tragic an election as 2000 for what it has meant for the direction this country has taken. Maybe it was inevitable, but that electoral choice, which represented the difference between delusional pathology and complex honesty, marks the moment when this country truly began its steep descent to the level of this utterly dishonest and delusional government we have in place now.
Similarly the media courtiers hated Al Gore and Howard Dean, and they loved George Jr. The same dynamic comes into play regarding weaknesses and strenghts emphasized or minimized. Take the way, for instance, the media at first just assumed that the Bush AWOL story was only for the lunatic fringe. Why? The logic behind it doesn't have a lot more to it than the high-school logic of who's in and who's out. Sounds simplistic, but the way you get ahead in that world is to combine a prodigious cleverness with an astonishing level of superficiality. It's what it takes to become a leading member of the Beltway courtier class. And so Bush has been able to get a pass because all his life, but especially in the last six years, he has thrived despite his incomptency because of the sycophantish inclination of courtiers consciously or unconsciously to protect those whom they perceive as royalty.